Schools to battle cash cuts next year

San Luis Obispo County schools expect to face significant budget hurdles in the coming year as a result of continued declining enrollment and a projected $8.6 million cut to schools countywide.

Those bleak predictions — which dominated county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker’s annual “education forecast” Wednesday — followed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

And while county students score above state and national norms on performance assessments, school officials still face an “achievement gap” between the leading students and those living in poverty, those learning English or those with a learning disability.

“I really chafe when I hear about cutting (money) to education,” Crocker told about 70 people gathered to hear the education forecast. “It’s not an expense — it’s an investment.”

The governor’s proposal would mean a loss of $6,250 per classroom, he said.

“The only option districts have when they’re in that situation is to make additional cuts,” Crocker said.

He said that five school districts have notified the County Office of Education that they may not be able to meet their future fiscal obligation requiring the districts to keep 3 percent of expenditures in reserves for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 fiscal years. They include Atascadero Unified, Lucia Mar Unified, Paso Robles Public Schools, San Miguel Joint Union and Shandon Joint Unified.

Templeton Unified Superintendent Deborah Bowers said the district laid off 33 teachers last year, but it was able to hire 29 of them back using federal stimulus funds.

She’s not sure how many layoffs the district may face this year — and she does not know whether the district will be able to rehire those teachers.

“We don’t have a lot of people to cut, we’ve done that over the years,” Bowers said. “We don’t have a lot of fat left. We’re into the bone.”

Coast Unified School District Superintendent Chris Adams said the district faces a $700,000 cut from its $10.5 million budget.

“We are tightening our belts every way we can,” he said. “We won’t do layoffs this year.”

Adams said that of the district’s 60 or so teachers, 12 are expected to retire in the next few years.

Last week, Paso Robles Public Schools announced a batch of budget ideas, including reorganizing an elementary school, laying off more employees and cutting teacher pay. Last year in the county’s largest school district, Lucia Mar Unified, 90 teachers were laid off, and 30 were later reinstated.

Atascadero Unified rehired 18 of the 54 teachers it laid off. Superintendent John Rogers said he expects a $3.7 million cut from next year’s anticipated budget of $33 million.

Crocker said school districts countywide will also see about 25 percent to 35 percent of current teaching staff retire in the next five years, leaving shortages in science, math and special education.

“The only blessing is you also lose the salaries” associated with those teachers, while less expensive staff take their place, said San Luis Coastal Unified School District Superintendent Ed Valentine, who expects about 60 of his district’s 400 teachers to retire in the next few years.

In addition, there are 2,000 fewer students in county schools than there were during the 2002-03 fiscal year. To date, that translates to a loss of $11 million in local and state funding going to the districts.

However, Crocker said, enrollment is now declining at a slower rate. This is the second year in which the class of entering kindergarteners is larger than the previous year. Still, this year’s high school senior class is 530 students larger than the entering kindergarten class.

There are other bright spots: county students scored well above the state average on the Academic Performance Index, used to measure academic performance and growth. The state’s target is 800 on a scale of 200 to 1,000. The average county score is 50 points higher than the state average.

And the county’s 11.1 percent dropout rate (based over four years of high school) is far lower than the state average of 18.9 percent.